A group of at least 25 Cranford residents crowded into a room at the Union County Courthouse in Elizabeth Wednesday for day one of a site plan hearing for the proposed Birchwood development plan, which calls for 360 apartment units to be constructed in a flood-prone area of Birchwood Avenue.
A handful of residents - some of whom were part of community group known as the Concerned Citizens of Cranford, met in the Parking lot of the Orange Avenue Pool about an hour before the planned 10 a.m. start time. The small group, along with Deputy Mayor Andis Kalnins, boarded a yellow school bus provided by the township to transport residents to and from the courthouse.
Local officials and residents objected to the hearing being held in Elizabeth as opposed to taking place in the Cranford Municipal Building. Residents worried that many people would either be working, on summer vacation or unable to travel to Elizabeth to be present for the hearing. Despite the objections, however, Special Hearing Officer Douglas K. Wolfson - a retired Superior Court Judge appointed to preside over the site plan hearing - maintained that the hearing was part of ongoing legal proceedings, not a typical Planning Board matter. As such, it was more appropriate to conduct the hearing in Superior Court.
"This is a judicial proceeding. This is not a planning board meeting in town hall," Wolfson said.
In the days preceding the hearings, Wolfson said he and Special Master Elizabeth McKenzie received several letters from residents objecting to the courthouse as a venue.
Township Attorney Phil Morin also raised objections that the notification for the hearing only made mention of day one of the case, when in fact, the hearing is scheduled to continue for two days. Stephen Eisdorfer, the attorney for Cranford Development Associates, an LLC for the S. Hekemian group which owns the property, stated that the law only requires notification for the first day of the hearing. The hearing itself, scheduled to begin at 10 a.m., began late as witnesses, residents and legal officials waited for Stephen Eisdorfer to arrive.
The site plans being reviewed during the two-day hearing involve the construction of 360 apartment units at 215-235 Birchwood Ave. - a section of town prone to significant flooding. The entire area was submerged in several feet of water following Hurricane Irene last year. The proposal, which also calls for a five-story parking garage, will include 60 affordable housing units.
For more than a year, residents and officials have been voicing strong opposition to the Birchwood Avenue housing plan. The township has been fighting to appeal Judge Lisa Chrystal's July, 2011 decision in a builder's remedy lawsuit to allow CDA to build
During the hearing, the architect who designed the building testified, giving specific information about the proposed project. The plans call for two building that will be 55-feet tall and have a combined total of 668 available parking spaces. The first building, Building A, will house 300 apartment units while Building B will consist of 60 units. The developer has yet to determine which of the apartments will be designated for affordable housing. McKenzie, during her questioning, indicated that the designation must be made as part of the official site plan approval. Plans also call for an "open" parking garage and a surface lot.
When questioning the architect, Morin asked questions about the plan's compliance with fire code as well as lines on the proposal marked as "flood line" and a "flood fringe line." The buildings, according to the plan, will be constructed next to these lines, which, the architect said, is permissible.
During public questioning, resident Thomas Hannen Jr. asked about the architect's design for an "open garage" which is designed to be built one foot above the flood fringe. Hannen asked whether or not the design took into consideration how the structure would handle rising flood waters in the event of another significant rainstorm. The architect indicated that the plans adhere to all building codes, but no special provisions were made to allow water to flow out of the garage if it floods.
The second witness to testify on Wednesday was traffic expert Elizabeth Dolan of the firm of Dolan and Dean. Dolan explained that her firm conducted two surveys of the intersection of Birchwood at Orange Avenue. One was conducted last July when school was not in session, and other this past June, before the school year ended. According to the traffic impact study, the level of traffic on Birchwood Avenue if the proposed 360 apartment units are constructed will be "acceptable" despite anticipated delays. She added that the traffic impact study also shows that the delays that would arise are not severe enough to warrant the installation of a new traffic signal at the intersection of Orange and Birchwood avenues. Drivers in that area could face delays of nearly one additional minute if the apartments are built.
The two intersections Dolan's firm included in the traffic study were Birchwood Avenue and Orange Avenue and at Cranford Avenue. As Cranford Avenue is not a through street, Morin - and a few residents - asked why the next intersection - Bloomingdale Avenue - was not included in the study. Dolan said the study was limited to the two "adjacent intersections."
"I guess we could have (included Bloomingdale Avenue)," she testified.
Morin stated that since Cranford Avenue is not a through street and Bloomingdale Avenue is a main thoroughfare and home to a school, failure to include it in the study does not present a "true representation" of what the traffic impavt in the area will be like if the Birchwood property is developed.
In response to concerns by Morin and residents regarding the Bloomingdale Avenue intersection, Special Master Wolfson said that since no one has raised the issue of that intersection before Wednesday's hearing, the argument ill "have little weight" when it comes to making a decision on the site plan.
The second day of the hearing was scheduled for today.